Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor
Comparative Frontiers: A Proposal for Studying the American West. By Jerome O. Steffen. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980. Bibliography. Index. 139 pages. $10.95.
Reviewed by Newell G. Bringhurst, Assistant Professor of History, Indiana University at Kokomo, author of a forthcoming book entitled Saints, Slaves, and Blacks on Mormon-black relations to be published by Greenwood Press.
This work is informative and enlightening, but at the same time a little disturbing. Steffen’s work is a “Proposal” designed to test the claim of Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” that change rather than continuity dominated Western American history. Steffen focuses on five comparative American frontiers—the Cis-Mississippi (or trans-Appalachian) Agricultural, Fur Traders’, Ranching, Mining, and Great Plains. Steffen’s “Proposal” suggests that change be broken down into two broad categories: (a) “modal change” or minimal change in which conceptual foundations along the frontier remained essentially the same and, (b) “fundamental change” in which there was significant alteration. According to Steffen these two types of change can be delineated by examining the degree of frontier “insularity” as opposed to “interacting links”—that is, the connection between Western frontier regions and “parent cultures” or main bodies of civilization to the East. Steffen suggests that America’s frontiers fell into two main categories: (1) “cosmopolitan frontiers”, associated with “modal change”, and a greater number of “interacting links” and, (2) “insular frontiers” characterized by minimal “interacting links” and “fundamental change” influenced by indigenous frontier environments.
Steffen utilizes these ideas in testing the concept of change on his five comparative frontiers. He then arrives at a set of “highly speculative” conclusions “based on selective documentation” (p. ix). The first of Steffen’s frontiers—the Cis-Mississippi Agricultural frontier—was dominated by change rather than continuity and was thus in the traditional Turner mode a typical frontier region. This region had limited contact or “interacting links” with older settled regions and was an “insular frontier” influenced primarily by its indigenous environment.
By contrast, Steffen’s other four frontiers were “cosmopolitan” with a greater number of “interacting links” and influenced primarily by parent cultures to the East. The Fur Trader’s Frontier developed in a spirit of mercantilism and imperialist acquisition carried from Europe and evident since the fifteenth century. The fur traders, themselves, reflected established behavior patterns as “expectant capitalists”—an attitude predominant in the larger Jacksonian American society. Continuity also dominated the Ranching Frontier with Western cattlemen perpetuating the practices of earlier Spanish, American colonial, and Ohio Valley ranchers. In fact, the “interacting links” between western ranchers and the rest of the nation intensified as cattle raising became a large-scale industry with Westerners consolidating their interests in concert with the new monopolistic industrial order emerging in the East. The mining frontier also exhibited continuity. Steffen places his examination of this frontier in a broader, time-place perspective by pointing out the similarities between western mining regions and earlier gold mining regions in Georgia. He notes the transference from East to West of mining codes, vigilance committees, and de facto courts. Finally, the Great Plains frontier was also dominated by continuity as the farmers of this region acted as “rural businessmen” and exhibited the same behavior and practices as their contemporary counterparts in the East.
Steffen’s “Proposal” is intriguing and his tentative conclusions seem fairly convincing. While his sociological jargon is, at times, distracting and overused, Steffen’s work provides a useful paradigm which should facilitate the further testing of his tentative findings. Steffen is most persuasive in his contention that Western historians need to further utilize the ideas and paradigms of the anthropologist, social psychologist, and sociologist. Also of value is Steffen’s use of prosopographic studies in examining the fur trading, cattle, and mining frontiers. He, thereby, effectively demonstrates another useful methodology for Western historians.
Despite its strengths, Steffen’s “Proposal” is disturbing in a couple of respects. Steffen’s tentative thesis that continuity rather than change dominated the trans-Mississippi frontiers is not really all that new. Many of Steffen’s suggestions were earlier developed by Earl Pomeroy in an article entitled “Toward a Reorientation of Western History: Continuity and Environment” published in 1955 in the Mississippi Valley Historical Review. Steffen, however, fails to acknowledge this article or even cite it in his footnotes or bibliography. Also disturbing is Steffen’s assertion that the “Western scholarly community has become, for all practical purposes, a closed society” (p. xviii). This is a gross overstatement especially in light of the many outstanding works in Western history that have appeared in recent years—many of which are cited in Steffen’s own footnotes and bibliography. These works demonstrate a sensitivity towards historical scholarship outside of the American West and a sound knowledge of the techniques of anthropology, pyschology, and sociology. While it is true that Western historians need to establish more outside contacts, they are certainly not as parochial as Steffen suggests.